As Covid rates rise again in the US, mask requirements ease in Washington

America Letter: Major legal battle looming over Biden’s vaccination requirement for businesses

A sign advocating  mask-wearing   in Washington DC. Authorities in the city  this week began to roll back requirements for wearing masks. Photograph: AFP via Getty Images

A sign advocating mask-wearing in Washington DC. Authorities in the city this week began to roll back requirements for wearing masks. Photograph: AFP via Getty Images

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Authorities in Washington DC this week began to roll back requirements for wearing masks to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Since arriving in the city this month it had been noticeable that virtually everyone entering a building or accessing public transport wore a face covering. In many stores security personnel at the entrances specifically asked anyone who had forgotten to don their mask.

The application of contact tracing measures in restaurants or bars has been more hit-and-miss, and no one has ever asked to see our Covid vaccination certificates.

Covid cases are beginning to tick up again in the United States but not yet at the same levels as in Europe.

The Washington Post’s tracking system said the rate of new infections had increased by 15 per cent in the District of Columbia over the past week, while there had been a rise of 14 per cent in Maryland and 26 per cent in Virginia

Following seven consecutive days of new cases numbering between 50 and 100 per 100,000 people, Montgomery County in nearby Virginia reintroduced its mask mandate last week, less than a month after lifting it.

However, city authorities in Washington have opted to move away from the compulsory approach.

Washington DC mayor Muriel Bowser said that rather than following a blanket mandate, residents, visitors and workers would be urged to follow risk-based guidance from health officials that took account of current health metrics and a person’s vaccination status.

Buses and trains

Masks are still required in private businesses that stipulate such a requirement on their premises; on public transport such as buses and trains, inside train stations, in airports and in ride-share vehicles; in schools and libraries as well as in facilities such as nursing homes; and in official facilities where there is direct interaction between employees and the public.

The move in Washington has not gone without criticism, both locally and beyond.

The differing attitudes towards masks between Washington DC and nearby counties in Virginia highlights in a nutshell the patchwork of rules and regulations in place across the US regarding tackling Covid - 19.

In some cases a libertarian approach of individual choice is to the fore, both in relation to masks and vaccinations.

With the Delta variant leading to a resurgence of the disease in some places mask mandates, which were eased in the summer, are being reintroduced. However, some states have moved either by means of legislation or executive action to prevent local governments and school districts from doing so.

In other areas local regulations more strict than in place in Ireland would appear to be in force.

Earlier this week this correspondent was informed by one official that anyone leaving the United States had to undergo an effective “quarantine” of 14 days after their return prior to being permitted to enter a particular public building for a routine administrative appointment.

However the row over the wearing of masks is likely to be overshadowed by the impending legal battle over whether the US government can essentially force private businesses to ensure their employees are either vaccinated against Covid-19 or undergo regular testing.

Across the US 230.7 million people have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine. About 196 million are fully vaccinated. However, in some states less than half the population has received a vaccine.

Scepticism

Surveys have shown that scepticism and opposition to vaccination is disproportionately higher among those who are white, rural, evangelical Christian and politically conservative.

The planned occupational safety and health administration rules – which form a key element of the Biden administration’s efforts to curb the pandemic – would see private employers with more than 100 workers having to require their staff to be vaccinated or face weekly testing and mandatory masking. The move could affect 84 million workers. However the Biden administration estimates the rules would save more than 6,500 lives and prevent more than 250,000 hospitalisations over a six-month period.

Inevitably the move faced widespread legal challenges from Republican-led states, employers and conservative groups.

Some weeks ago judges temporarily blocked the planned introduction of the measure from January and found the Biden labour department had exceeded its authority and caused “economic uncertainty” and “upheaval” for businesses.

Earlier this week the Biden administration asked a federal appeals court to reinstate its vaccination or testing requirement plan “as soon as possible”.

Win or lose this whole issue is likely to end up before the supreme court in what will be another landmark ruling on where the line should be drawn between personal freedom and the concept of the common good.

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